I read Sholem Aleichem, né Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, even before I read Isaac Bashevis Singer. Fiddler on the Roof, based on his Tevye stories, had given the Yiddish writer an unexpected currency. In eighth-grade choir, within a year of the show’s opening, we were singing “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” An enterprising publisher put out a cheap paperback of the Tevye stories, and I read it. When I learned some wag had dubbed Sholem Aleichem “the Jewish Mark Twain,” I saw the sense. Both were funny. Aleichem’s stories, like Twain’s, often have a folkish quality, as do Singer’s, and none is the lesser artist for it.
Sholem Aleichem’s return (he died in New York City in 1916) coincided with the great mid-century flowering of writing by Jewish Americans. Everyone was reading Bellow, Malamud and Roth (“the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of American literature,” Bellow quipped). An earlier generation was rediscovered: Edward Dahlberg, Daniel Fuchs, Henry Roth, Nathanael West. With writers this good, and factoring in the Jewish comedians we watched on television and, in 1967, the great Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, some of us wished we were Jewish.
Sholem Aleichem wrote more than Tevye. He was enormously prolific, and an ardent Zionist. For his writings dedicated to that cause, see Why Do the Jews Need a Land of Their Own? (Herzl Press, 1984). A good place to start with his fiction is the collection edited in 1979 by Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse, The Best of Sholom Aleichem. Included is “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke” (trans. Julius and Frances Butwin), which describes the impact of the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906) on the Jews in the fictional Russian village of Kasrilevke:
“So how did Kasrilevke learn about the Dreyfus case? From Zeidel. Zeidel, Reb Shaye’s son, was the only person in town who subscribed to a newspaper, and all the news of the world they learned from him, or rather through him. He read and they interpreted. He spoke and they supplied the commentary. He told what he read in the paper, but they turned it around to suit themselves, because they understood better than he did.”
The author recounts the affair in condensed form, and the reactions of the villagers:
“Later when Zeidel came to them and told them a fresh tale, that the whole thing was a plot, that the Jewish Captain Dreyfus was innocent and that it was an intrigue of certain officers who were themselves involved, then the town became interested in the case. At once Dreyfus became a Kasrilevkite. When two people came together, he was the third.”
That final sentence is a beauty, and here are several more:
“There were two people whom Kasrilevke came to love and revere. These were Emile Zola and [Fernand] Labori [attorney for Dreyfus and Zola]. For Zola each one would gladly have died. If Zola had come to Kasrilevke the whole town would have come out to greet him; they would have borne him aloft on their shoulders.”
The story is at once amusing and deadly serious, a very Jewish mingling of tones and voices. Sholem Aleichem was born on this date, March 2, in 1859, in Pereyaslav, Ukraine.